Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Living together in Kibale Forest

In Great Britain, we tend to have cosy relationships with animals. The old clichés come out as soon as I write these words: the people who die while rescuing their dogs from fires or floods; the money poured into animal charities compared with those supporting children; and the pet shops crammed with gifts for dogs and cats way beyond anything that most children in Uganda could even dream of.

Animals are not regarded in the same light in Uganda, and probably not in other African countries as well. Animals spread disease. They attack and kill people. They eat crops so that your children go hungry. That doesn't mean they can't provide some benefits to people, however. Animals, both wild and farmed, are food. If semi-domesticated, they can act as guards. And in some areas, particular animals may have a monetary and cultural status well beyond their nutritional value – cattle, for instance. However, animals are rarely, if ever, pets.

So what happens in Africa when animals and people both regard the land as belonging to them? What are the chances of conflict? And if there is conflict, who is most likely to win?

Uganda has the youngest population in the world: roughly 50% below the age of 15 and 56% below 18 (and 5% above the age of 60 - that’s the impact of history for you). It also has the highest population growth in the world, a rate of 3.4% with an average of 7 children per woman (Population Reference Bureau Washington - 2011 World Population data sheet). At this rate it will double its population in 20 years. All these children need food and housing. All these families need farmland. As a result of population growth just since the early 1990s, Uganda has lost a third of its forest - and the animals which used to live in it. Marginal land – mountainside and wetlands – continues to be encroached on, and landslides, floods and death are the result.

Part of the 50%, riding their home-made wooden tricycles on the road to Kibale.
And, in the meantime, over the last century, what has been happening to the animals, those enormous herds of elephants, buffaloes and antelopes for which its grasslands were famed as recently as the 1960s? How have the hippos, the crocodiles and the rhinos survived?

Young male elephant looking for a herd in QENP.
A lot of animals went down to the mzungus’ guns, and a lot went into the Ugandans’ cooking pots. Having said that, in the early part of the 20th century, the land in the west was actually under-populated, because of the impact of sleeping sickness on the local human population. From the 30s through to the 60s, animals such as elephants and hippos were also shot as part of controlled culls, as well as as game, because their numbers gradually outgrew the space and nutrition available to them in the national parks. For 15 years between 1972 (Amin) and the late 1980s (end of the bush war), it was open season for hunting. The invading Tanzanians who ousted Amin in 1979, gorged on game which they were forbidden to kill in their own country. 

Animals have continued to be poached: for food and, if you are a rhino, for your horn. No rhinos now exist in the wild, although a breeding programme has succeeded in reintroducing a herd of about 11 in central Uganda. And the poaching still goes on, not so much of elephants and hippos; more of antelopes and wild pigs, more conveniently-sized beasts. Even now, rows continue about the gazetting of national parks. The Mount Elgon situation is well known. However, only yesterday local people were protesting about the UWA evicting them from their ancestral land in East Madi (north). The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) has done a lot to protect the animals. Until very recently, virtually nothing was done to protect the people.

Happy hippo and friend wallowing in the Kazinga Channel, QENP.
The decision was made long ago to prioritise animals over people in the national parks. For the local population, the results were sometimes tragic. Whole tribes and clans were evicted, not just from their land but from their thousands-of-years-old way of life: hunting and gathering. Some starved to death as a result (for example, the Ik of Kidepo in the north-east). In Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), the local clans have been restricted to fishing and salt-making in the crater lakes. Being national parks, no farming is allowed so most other food has to be brought in from elsewhere. We saw some pretty grim rural housing in the Kasenyi area of QENP - the word ‘slum’ would have been used in an urban context – and some very deprived-looking children. The fishing boats of Kutunguru look pretty enough when snapped by visitors on the Kazinga Channel cruise boat and no doubt their catches are sold regularly to the local hotels. Nevertheless, the people must experience a pretty restricted life compared with that of their forefathers not all that long ago.

Gathering water at litter-strewn Kikorongo crater lake, Kisenyi.

Eyeing up our car; visitors are few and far between.
This preamble is just a long-winded way of saying that any park which has got the balance between animals and humans 'just about right’ deserves as much praise as we can give them. One of those parks appears to be Kibale, north of QENP, between Fort Portal and Kamwenge. (The 'k' in Kibale is pronounced as 'ch'.)

We stayed at the Chimps’ Nest, a safari camp just on the edge of the forest. Our own comfortable banda was surrounded by bush, while the tree house Tim and Ruth stayed in was within the forest itself: so much so, that they actually needed guards to escort them to bed, to protect them from the aggressive forest elephants which roam these parts. This was no romantic notion: Tim and Ruth could hear the elephants crashing around and tearing down trees during the night. They debated what they would do if their tree house was torn down. Tim’s idea of holding onto the trunk (of the tree, not the marauding elephant) was brave, if a tad over-optimistic. We saw the evidence of their rampages the next morning (the elephants, not Tim and Ruth); the silent fear of the guards had clearly not been an affectation.  A fifteen minute walk to one's bedroom provides plenty of opportunity for more excitement than one really wants before tucking oneself in. The delight, however, came in the morning when Tim and Ruth woke up high up near the forest canopy and ate their breakfast while watching monkeys gambol around the branches adjoining their open air ‘dining room.’

Tree house at Chimps' Nest.
Petit dejeuner en plein air.

Venturing back.
Developments like Chimps’ Nest may appear at first sight to be yet another encroachment on the natural forest. Far from it. Sensitively designed and managed camps like these may be one of the best ways of protecting wildlife from further depredations.  Visitors are able to experience ‘real’ forest life, and hoteliers have a vested interest in keeping the environment and its animals intact for them to enjoy. Indeed, Chimps’ Nest is said to be planning to expand the area it holds, to provide more of a ‘buffer zone’.

And buffer zones are needed. Local people have to watch while the protected elephants rampage across their fields of sweet potatoes, uprooting and devouring the food they need for their families. They shout and wave sticks, but elephants are dangerous, and they sometimes have to call on the UWA rangers to fire shots in the air. Despite the existence of an elephant trench, it is virtually impossible to provide complete protection to entire villages as houses are spread out over quite an area.

Preparing cassava for drying.

Goat shed with resident dog.

Women preparing the ground for a sick neighbour.

Curious pig.
Nevertheless, local communities can benefit significantly from the visitors who come to see the animals. They sell their vegetables, fruit, meat and honey to Chimps’ Nest and, no doubt, other safari camps. They work in the camps and ranger posts themselves and, in Kibale, take small numbers of visitors on guided walks around their villages and to nearby wetlands. Local crafts such as the beautiful raffia baskets and mats made by the women are another source of income.  We also enjoyed the local singers and dancers: nothing polished or designed for tourists, just local people sharing their traditions. An absolute privilege.

Children learn raffia weaving at school...

...and make their own beehives out of wicker and mud.
So people benefit and animals benefit - and, of course, visitors benefit. The relationship may sometimes get a bit strained – 'Oh no, the elephants are trampling the maize again' – but, overall, it is mutually beneficial. There are few, if any, package tours as such to Uganda. The independent visitors and fairly exclusive small group safari tours which do visit the country tend to be supportive of conservation and appreciative of the opportunities to explore a relatively unspoilt part of the world. Such visitors can make a real difference both to preserving the environment and wildlife, and to supporting the people.

Peeling the tatties...
...and entertaining the visitors.

Locally-made instruments.
And all this, of course, makes a real difference to the particularly special animals who live in the forest itself. (Not that each animal isn’t special in its own right – no racist supremacy within the animal kingdom, we hope.) If people can be persuaded that it's worth preserving the forest, then the animals will be preserved too. Kibale Forest contains 13 primates, including chimpanzees, baboons, grey-cheeked mangabey, red colobus, black and white colobus and L’Hoest’s, red-tailed, vervet and blue monkeys. (Thank you,  Andrew Roberts.)  If you get bored with primates, there are 335 species of bird life in Kibale, many of them rare and endemic to this particular area. Uganda is one of the world's great ornithological destinations. In fact, overall, birdwatchers bring in twice as much money into the Ugandan economy as gorilla watchers (in 2008, $6 million compared with $3.3 million, according to the UWA, with the potential to rise to $45 million, or so they say). 

I would love to boast about how many of all these creatures we saw. We have to admit, however, to being at Foundation Level in animal and bird spotting. The baboons are easy; you can see them on the road. The chimpanzees take more work – a lot more work. OK if they stay up in the trees eating fruit, as they did in Kyambura Gorge. Not quite so OK when they decide to traverse hill and dale at great speed, with the huffing, puffing and sweating visitors in hot (yet tip-toeing) pursuit as they (the chimps) do what chimps do.

Baboons usually stay put, often on the road.
And what do chimps do? The females tend to stay out of sight with their young ones. You might see them scaling a tree with the little ones clinging on for dear life, but they rapidly disappear if they consider you to be a threat. The males, however, do the usual male galumphing thing. They're exhibitionists, really. They hoot loudly, swing through the branches and thump energetically on the buttresses of the enormous trees which tower above. All calculated to intimidate but really just showing off – much like human males, in fact. Teenage humans who communicate in grunts would be quite at home in Kibale Forest.

Slithering down.

And off they go.
Oh, and if the chimps get just a bit too much for you, you can also try to track down some of the 400+ butterfly species in Kibale: just a fraction of the 1,200 different kinds of butterfly which Uganda takes for granted.

There is a butterfly there, honest!

And a couple here.

So, in our view, Kibale has got the balance just about right. The visitors have lots of wonderful creatures to see, the people have retained their dignity and sense of self-reliance and the animals are doing just fine. Living together: that's what communities are all about.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Living on the margins: it's not just the people who complain (has more on elephant trenches)
Speechless in Kazinga (about Queen Elizabeth Park)
Chimp pee and elephant poo: our Ugandan anniversary (about the chimps in Kyambura Gorge)
Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda' (has more on the Ik)


  1. It should be noted that while the trunk-clinging plan was ambitious, alternative options were limited at 20-feet up. The marauding, destructive elephant's cute cartoon image is the work of a PR genius.
    We also remember our frequent warnings about the dangers of sprinting hippos, unpredictable rhinos, camouflaged crocodiles and thieving monkeys, plus insects that bite, burrow, sting and infect.
    Never has a holiday provided such a rewarding wildlife experience, yet one that made one wonder how weedy humans ever made it to the top of the food chain.
    Inner city London now feels so much safer.

  2. Just think, though, you'll be able to dine out on the stories for months!